It has been a long, long year in which many have suffered. In times like these, music can be a salvation and despite what has been a catastrophic year it still yielded much fine listening material which we here at Ear Bliss Central are forever grateful. As we usually do this time of year, we close out 2020 with a list of favorite albums from the past year that hit the sweet spot for this listener. A common thread through almost all is they’re from indie labels which has been the primary coverage M.O. for Ear Bliss since day one. Each of the 13 albums below had that little extra something that kept me returning to them time and again. I hope you can check some of them out. We also list our “Honorable Mention” selections which are equally worth seeking out. In no real order, here are the 2020 releases that most lit up the Ear Bliss world this past year.
Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways (Columbia Records)
The elder statesman of American music is approaching 80 and proves on Rough and Rowdy Ways that he is as relevant as ever. He is at times sentimental, melancholy, roadhouse bluesin’, and rocking on this album which included his first Billboard number one single with the epic “Murder Most Foul” released at the outset of the pandemic. The bard of song gives us a multi-colored album to sip slowly and savor.
Puss N Boots – Sister (Blue Note Records)
Sit down and chill? Go here. The trio of Norah Jones, Sasha Dobson, and Catherine Popper collaborating under the name Puss N Boots has allowed each to step out of their various comfort zones when it comes to making music. Sister is the trio’s sophomore album and it features 14 songs of frills-free beauty marked by basic guitar riffing and simple drums into this organic blending of voices that resonates time and again.
Early James – Singing for My Supper (Easy Eye Sound Records)
Listening to the debut album from Alabama native and Nashville-based newcomer Early James called Singing for My Supper, what jumps out first is his voice, something like no other that strikes in an indescribable way like some old soul folk singer. Dan Van Ronk and Tom Waits come to mind. His songs also hit hard, as does the rich fabric of musical sounds surrounding those songs. From the arrangements with an old school blend of vintage instrumentation to James’ striking voice and expressive vocal style, there is a highly satisfying sense of drama and tension in this beautiful mess that needs to be heard.
Lilly Hiatt – Walking Proof (New West Records)
Walking Proof from Lilly Hiatt is an unflinching collection of soul-searching songs from a songwriter who has never been afraid to lay herself bare. Her most mature effort to date (and her voice has never sounded better), Hiatt walks the plank between indie rock and alt country. A side note is it marks the first time her dad, the legendary singer/songwriter John Hiatt, has ever made an appearance on one of her records.
Nathaniel Rateliff – And It’s Still Alright (Stax Records)
His first solo release minus his band The Night Sweats, Nathaniel Rateliff gets deep on And It’s Still Alright creating a personal and powerful set of songs inspired largely by two major heartbreaks in his life, the dissolution of his marriage after 11 years and the loss of a close friend and collaborator Richard Swift. Heavy and soulful.
Sarah Jarosz- World On the Ground (Rounder Records)
Working with award winning producer John Leventhal whose resume includes albums from the likes of Elvis Costello, Shawn Colvin, Marc Cohn, and of course his wife Roseanne Cash, the multi Grammy-winning favorite of the Americana world Jarosz on World On the Ground spreads her wings to winning proportions displaying flashes of pop zeal on an album of songs which draw from her life experiences growing up in a small town in Central Texas.
Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud (Merge Records)
Waxahatchee is the brainchild of the Philadelphia-based singer and songwriter Katie Crutchfield. With Saint Cloud, Crutchfeld pulls the foot from the gas pedal of previous albums downshifting the sonics into a steady groove. Simply put, it is a singer/songwriter-oriented affair in the Americana vein, but with more of an edge than most releases in the genre and where the transition in sound affords Crutchfield’s vocals and lyrics more space to roam which they do to great measure.
Country Westerns – Country Westerns (Fat Possum Records)
Recalling some of the best of the rockin’ side of the early-to-mid 1990s alt country movement, Nashville-based Country Westerns on this debut album pump out a bleary-eyed, barroom blast of heavy duty riffage with catchy melodies remindful of the Replacements. It is wonderfully raucous and messy rock and roll with a garage fervor from a mere trio featuring a lead singer in Joseph Plunket whose world-weary voice is roughhewn and soulful amidst all the cacophony.
Chris Stapleton – Starting Over (Mercury Records)
With his 2020 album Starting Over, does Chris Stapleton demonstrate that there’s still hope for country music? Whereas this excellent new one holds tightly to the trad side of things, the thinking here is it a more of an anomaly in what passes for country music nowadays. I guess that makes him a rebel and he does country right on Starting Over.
Jerry Joseph – The Beautiful Madness (Cosmic Sex School Records)
I love the Drive-By Truckers and they put out two records this year one of which is highly recommended. They also had a part in a third album produced by DBT front man Patterson Hood. West-based Jerry Joseph has been rocking and rolling for 30-plus years and he connects with Hood on The Beautiful Madness on which he slices a vein and rocks, rolls, and soul’s his way through heavy duty songs. Tough stuff and great.
Swamp Dogg – Sorry You Couldn’t Make It (Joyful Noise Records)
Veteran soul and R&B artist, not to mention outsized personality, Swamp Dogg, goes country on his new album Sorry You Couldn’t Make It. Make that country music dripping with soul. The album also features the late elder statesmen of the country and folk world, John Prine, on two cuts and whose classic song “Sam Stone” was first recorded by Swamp Dogg in 1972.
Paul Burch – Light Sensitive (Plowboy Records)
Over the course of 14 albums including this latest, the long-time Nashville-based singer/songwriter Paul Burch has been a pillar of quality demonstrating a subtle sort of restlessness when it comes to style. Touches of country, folk, blues, rock & roll, soul, R&B, and even jazz have all infiltrated his songs and sound during that time and he expertly boils all of that into the excellent brew that is Light Sensitive.
Charley Crockett – Welcome to Hard Times (Son of Davy/Thirty Tigers Records)
In the liner notes to this album, roots artist Charley Crockett says “I wanted to make an album that would change the entire conversation about country music.” He certainly makes a strong case over the course of Welcome to Hard Times. It is al done in the old school style featuring songs deep and downright dark at times with an ethos entirely in keeping country music at its purest.
Sturgill Simpson – Cuttin Grass (High Top Mountain Records); Elizabeth Cook - Aftermath (Agent Love Records); Robert Vincent – In This Town You’re Owned (The Orchard/Thirty Tigers Records); Bart Budwig – Another Burn on the Astroturf (Fluff & Gravy Records); Lucinda Williams – Good Souls Better Angels (Highway 20 Records); Rose City Band – Summerlong (Thrill Jockey Records); The Jayhawks – XOXO (SHAM Records); Arlo McKinley – Die Midwestern (Oh Boy Records); William Prince – Reliever (Glass Note Records).
Dan Ferguson is a free-lance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursday nights from 6 – 9 p.m. on WRIU-FM 90.3.